Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Snowy blue

I went Christmas shopping in a certain nefariously seductive art-supply store.  Being generous, I bought myself several presents.  One was a blue pen - perfect for drawing the cool-blue winter-wonderland of Hollyburn mountain, where I happen to be spending much of my holiday week:

An adolescent hemlock, curling up to sleep in the ever-deepening snow.

An ice-colour sketch of First Lake on Christmas day.  The paint was freezing on the page in about 3 seconds.

A crew building an igloo (our guest-house) in a snowstorm.  The igloo is actually quite a bit bigger than this, but composition won out over strict architectural accuracy.

A neighbouring cabin, bearing its roofload of snow well.  While I painted this, a snowshoe hare came up to about 2m from me, sniffing the air because it knew that something was wrong, but not recognizing a human who doesn't move at all for 20 minutes.

And icicles on the edge of our roof - which is 14 feet above the ground but currently at eye level because of the snowpack.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Quick portraits

5-minute portraits, mostly done on the seabus (two per 12-minute trip). I do these with a Lamy Safari pen filled with J. Herbin "Perle Noir" ink.  It's water-soluble.  I use a wet brush later to pull the lines into washes.  And to try to hide the lines that went wrong.

Friday, 9 December 2016

Snow survivors

Several years ago, we came home on a snowy afternoon to find a varied thrush crouched in the narrow patch of  bare ground between the house and the deep snow.  He was clearly down to his last reserves and couldn't even hold his wings up.  I tried to catch him to take him inside, but he could hop just enough to stay away from me.  I ended up herding him towards the snow under the bird feeder, where I had spread some seeds for ground birds.  He huddled there miserably until dusk, after all the other birds had gone to roost for the night.  I knew he would never make it through the night, so I tried to catch him again, but he hopped away and ended up hidden in my woodshed.

With the long cold night, I was sure that was the end of the bird.  But the next morning at first light he was under the bird feeder, slowly picking seeds out of the snow.  He stayed there all day, never flying up into the tree like the other birds.  At dusk, again long after the other birds had sought shelter, I saw him fly off, barely getting off the ground and clearing the fence.  Again, I didn't expect to see him again.

But the next morning, there he was feeding with the other birds.  This time he sometimes flew up with them into the tree and sat in a pale sunbeam before fluttering down to feed again.  By the fourth day, he was feeding like a normal bird, pecking seeds on the snow, flying into the tree when the flock spooked, and resting in the sun.

On the fifth day, I was working at my desk when I heard an unmistakable sound - a varied thrush singing.  He was in the top of the tree, mid-winter, but singing like the first warm day of spring.  He ended up staying all winter.  We have a varied thrush at the feeder every year now, especially on snowy days.  I know about bird life-spans, but still, I like to think it's that same bird that a few seeds saved from that winter storm, and who lived to sing his thanks.

Snow is a rare thing in Vancouver, challenging and confusing - for birds, for drivers, for worried weathermen, and for flowers that heard how early spring comes here and were misled by that one warm sunny day last week.

Even the skinny-jeaned baristas have to switch from making immaculate swirls on low-fat decaf soy-milk lattes to battling the snowy elements.  It's a tough job, requiring strength, dedication, perseverance and colourful Gore-tex.  Unfortunately, this one outside the local cafe succumbed.  It's sad, but it's Nature's way of thinning the herd and making space for the next generation of cafe workers that will spring up almost as soon as the snow melts.  And we can take solace in the fact that nothing is wasted in Nature's economy - the scavengers and decomposers rely on the toll of the harsh winter as much as we rely on those lattes.  (Actually, the cafe guy survived.  He was joyful to get outside and play in the snow, and he probably got a free espresso for his efforts.)

Monday, 5 December 2016

Quay, ski, and brew-er-y

I haven't been out sketching too much this past month - this cold, rainy, dark month - but I did manage to find a sunny'ish relatively warm day for Lonsdale Quay, a lovely snowy one for the first cross-country ski of the year and a view of the rebuilt Hollyburn Lodge, and any-day-is-fine for working on my (languishing) career as a beer illustrator.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Lots of life

Those dark November days, when the last leaves splat to the ground - you have to look for warmth and life inside.  [Leaves in Vancouver do not "flutter" or "tumble".  They get soaked on the tree until their stems give up, then they splat.  On a quiet day, you can hear them splatting.]  Luckily I'm part of two life drawing groups, with great models and warm, lively company.

This one was a forty minute drawing during a longer pose, done in compressed charcoal and dry pastel on mylar.  It's a luxury to have time to get the basics down, then be able to think about what to emphasize.  I did a fair bit of exaggeration, trying for a strong, monumental look.  My personal jury is still out on whether it worked or not.  

Series of two-minute gestures drawn done together with some sense of space always seem to tell a story.  I'm not entirely sure what the story is, but this one seems like an epic.

This longer pose looked familiar somehow, but I couldn't place it until I saw my drawing the next day and immediately thought "Christina's World".  Andrew Wyeth's iconic painting has a totally different model, setting, media and artistic quality(!), but the same expressive posture.

Our new model got dire warnings from the group when she started this similar 20-minute pose: "Your arm will fall off!  You won't survive!"  No problem - models are tough.  This drawing was about the rhythm of that upper leg and hip, and the twist in the back.  And figuring out how to draw blonde hair with black charcoal!

And finally, some California dreamin' on such a winter's day.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Dr Sketchy holiday

Dr Sketchy's is a great escape from interminable fall rains - crowded, hot, loud, and full of randomness.  And exotic creatures.  You'd think you were in the tropics.  I'm often the source of the randomness, as I occasionally have art-supply management issues.  (It's hard using a pen, two brushes, an ink bottle and a watercolour tray while drinking beer...)  But this time I was at the receiving end.  First a brush came flying in from who-knows-where and added a big black splot to a drawing.  Then the girl next to me dropped a wet painting face down on another drawing.  Finally, another person's lapdog, who was being used as an easel, spilled her (the person's, not the dog's) beer, although that one missed any of my beleagured masterpieces.  I didn't win a coveted Dr Sketchy's prize, even with my "best incorporation of a leopard" contest entry, which I was pretty proud of.  But just getting three hours in the local tropics is a prize.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

New York 6: Coney Island

The final stop on the New York drawing circuit was Coney Island.  It's somewhat resuscitated after a decrepit spell, but it still has a strong sense of by-gone about it.  And that seemed perfectly appropriate on a warm October day with an end-of-summer feel.  Big kites were flying on the beach, in front of the 96-year-old rickety Wonder Wheel.  That was the only ride we went on.  The newer ones all looked like they had been carefully engineered - what's the fun of that?

The boardwalk is the scene, probably looking much like it did 50 years ago.
But one thing has changed - a Coney Island microbrewery.  So it wasn't all holiday, I did work on my future career as a beer illustrator.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

New York 5: Times Square and Cats

I've had people crowd around me when I'm drawing, including Ecuadorean policemen and Cuban soldiers, and small people have climbed right on to me a couple times, but I've never actually been physically assaulted - until I got to Times Square in New York.  They have bleachers overlooking the craziness of the square (which is a triangle - am I the first person to notice that?).  It's a great place to draw the scene.  I was drawing peacefully, talking to a few other bleacher-sitters, when two immensely pudgy 8-year-old boys from Wisconsin or some other fly-over state (as New Yorkers contemptuously call anywhere else besides Los Angeles) came up to me, each holding an immense bag of M&M's.  They stood staring at me, handfuls of partially masticated candies drooling from their mouths.  I showed them my drawing, made every effort to be polite.  Then they went and stood right behind me and started making squealing noises that quickly became full screeches when I ignored them.  Next, they start poking me in the shoulder.  I continued ignoring them.  Finally they switched to punching in me in the head.  I lost it at that point - I leapt up, spun around and was one millisecond from throwing them off the bleacher onto the crowd below.  Fortunately, I remembered about lawsuits in the nick of time, so the New York Times headline didn't read "Hurled Iowa brats crush twelve".  I just moved so I was surrounded by a nice Swedish family.  But really, what are two awful children from Nebraska doing without parents in New York, and who thought it was a good idea to buy them 10 pounds of chocolate?  Anyway, I like my drawing.  It's the busiest place I've ever been.
You have to go to a Broadway show if you're in New York, if only because every one you mention your trip to will ask if you did.  Fortunately, we don't feel any need to go to the trendiest shows, so we got to go to one we like.  We like cats, and look, there's a whole show about them!  It's being re-whatever-the-word-is on Broadway after a decade break, and we'd never seen it.  Hopefully some critic has said that it is "full of sound and furry, signifying nothing", because that's a good line.  There's nothing resembling a plot - but I don't think you go to Broadway musicals for moments of profound contemplation and insight. There are lots of feline characters, colourful costumes, lights and dancing, it's extravagant and fun, and a novel place to draw, which itself is worth the price of admission.  

Friday, 28 October 2016

New York 4: Met and Central Park

There's something exciting about seeing famous paintings, even if you've seen pictures of the pictures a thousand times.  I guess it's the same thing that pop-culture people feel when they see celebrities. The Metropolitan Museum is full of art-history celebrities, throughout its 800-and-something rooms.  Drawing them helps me slow down and look, and avoid complete oversaturation.  I should be done the whole collection in about 5,000 more visits.

One room has 4 Vermeers, of the 36 or so total (although one of them was fairly unimpressive - I hope they have a good provenance for it...).  Along with a few other paintings by Dutch contemporaries, the small room held what I figure would be over 500 million dollars worth of art.  Which totaled about 20 square feet of canvas - 25 million dollars per square foot, even more than most Manhattan apartments.

I also admired Picasso's portrait of Gertrude Stein, mainly for a story about it that I have repeated often: Someone saw the picture after Picasso had finished it, and said, "That doesn't look like Gertrude Stein."  Picasso replied "It will."  It does show Picasso's "self-confidence".  But it is also a good lesson - once the model is gone, or you leave the street scene, all that's left is the picture.  So you should make it what you want it to be, not just what is actually in front of you.  This is also a good consolation when someone's drawing goes really wrong.

Central Park is one of the saving graces of New York.  We ended up there a couple times, like an over-stimulated child sent for a time-out.  The view from the Met roof is a good one, and from the belvedere lookout over the turtle pond and amphitheatre.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

New York 3: The statue, the skyline, the subway, the highline

The Statue of Liberty doesn't need much introduction.  So I'll jump right to the big question: Is the Statue of Liberty male?  You have to wonder when you've done a lot of life drawing and you see that big square jaw, the huge crushing hands and the distinctly barrel-shaped body.  On the other hand, I guess, who really cares?  It's a great iconic symbol, whatever gender it wishes to be.

The same immensely crowded (!) harbour boats continue from the statue to Ellis Island, which served as the main immigration gateway to the US for several decades.  It has a wonderful museum, full of old pictures of the immigrants and what their world was like.  I didn't get enough time there, because the island also has a classic view of the Manhattan skyline, including the soaring One World Trade Center.  It too is a symbol of a tragic past for many, and a hopeful future.

I was nervous about the New York subway.  I remember images from the 70's and 80's.  But it turned out to be safe, efficient for getting everywhere, and kind of fun in a rattle-trap old circus ride sort of way.  It was also the only place we really encountered the archetypical Rude New Yorker - two ladies, 4-foot-10 tall, who stood right across the doorway, arms locked to the poles, and refused to let anyone on or off the train, ignoring all polite and less-than-polite requests.  All while complaining in loud grating voices about their therapists.  Keep it up, ladies - you're a tourist attraction!

The High Line trail is a former elevated railway down the west side of Manhattan that has been turned into a walking trail, complete with native vegetation, art installations and, on a sunny fall afternoon, an entire mid-sized city worth of people.  It weaves around and sometimes through buildings.  There are benches, and even little grandstands looking out over industrial buildings, the river, street scenes or the crowd.  It's pretty much what I would come up with if I was asked to design the World's Greatest Urbansketching Park.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

New York 2: Flatiron and water tanks

Broadway slices across the otherwise regular grid of New York streets, forming a series of narrow triangular areas.  Fortunately, someone found a building with exactly the right shape for the lot.  The Flatiron building is elegant, ornate and a challenge for two-point perspective.  To add to that, you have to sit almost on the street to get a view of both sides of the building.  It's a popular place for tourists, and since everything on the street in New York is a show, me and my sketchbook were photographed by a German tourist, a French couple, a group of Japanese girls and possibly even one native New Yorker.  I think the Japanese girls were responsible for some of the top rows of windows going a little bit wonky.

Our 15th floor hotel room looked out across rooftops, with the Empire State building in the background.  Not a bad view, especially for an urban sketcher!  One morning we found a crew of workers installing  a new wooden water tank across the street.  They were climbing around on make-shift scaffolding 120 feet off the ground, with no sign of any fall protection.  I was a nervous wreck, and I was just drawing them.

The water tanks are a picturesque feature of many rooftops.  They look quite incongruous against the stylish old and new architecture, but they make a lot of practical sense.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

New York 1: Empire State, library and the clock.

From Southampton to the somewhat bigger and busier New York City...  The excuse was a birthday party with my high school classmates, who are much older than me and therefore having their 50th birthdays this year.  But I'd never been to the urban-sketching mecca, so we spent five days there, and I did a lot of frantic drawing.  We checked off many of the well-known sights, but the list of really well-known places that we didn't get to, even just in Manhattan, is probably longer than the entire list of well-known places in any other North American city.

The Empire State building was first, since it was nearby and pretty easy to find.  It actually doesn't look enormously big, maybe because of its complex shapes and human-scale windows.  The standard glass office towers of many cities look bigger, because they are so unfriendly.  I drew the building standing on the corner of 5th Ave and 33rd St - like everywhere else in the city, a throng of people on one side of me and taxis on the other.  But New York sidewalks are full of permanent scaffolding - building inspection laws and avid lawyers mean that it is easier and safer for owners of buildings with old facades to keep these up all the time.  They provide good posts for sketchers to lean against and not be run over by cars or pedestrians.

The main branch of the New York library is a fantastic place, with a fabulously grand reading room.  If I lived there, I'd be in there reading all the time, just to be there.  Or maybe not - there would probably be too much other stimulation to fit in anything so contemplative.  They only let camera-toting tourists into one corner of the room, but I confidently strode right in with my sketching gear and no one questioned me.

My mom told me that when you turn 80, they make you take tests to renew your driving licence, which include drawing a clock.  Apparently it's a struggle for people with impending dementia.  I have a few years to go, but I started practicing with the clock outside Grand Central Station.  I'm hoping to say to the driving inspector "I need a couple more minutes, I'm still working on Minerva's robes."

Friday, 21 October 2016

Southampton: Lighthouses and more

I had a conversation about Southampton with someone at a party.  It was a bit of a weird conversation, until I realized that he was talking about the city in England and I was talking about the small town on Lake Huron where my family has a cottage.  There are good micro-breweries in both places.  Otherwise they are apparently quite different.

I got to our Southampton on Thanksgiving weekend.  A local bylaw states that at least 75% of anyone's artistic output has to include a lighthouse, of which there are three nice historical examples.  I did 4 drawings, so I was allowed to do one of the lighthouse-free one-block main street, on the Day After The Summer People Leave.  It must be a great day for the local residents, although they certainly didn't show it by parading up and down the main street.
The lighthouses are classic - a large old stone one on Chantry Island offshore, and a wooden one on the dock at the mouth the Saugeen River.  I drew the island from dunes at the end of the beach, which were scraggly things when I was a kid but are now a flourishing ecosystem after active restoration.  

And following that other rule that says you have to finish a slide show with a sunset picture, here's a quick sketch of one over the lake.  (The little vertical line at the far left is a lighthouse, so I'm okay there).  I used a technique I saw in an Alan Fletcher book - putting an intense drop of paint right at the horizon when the washes for the lake and sky were still wet, and letting that give you whatever sunset you happen to get.  It's hit or miss.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Toronto: Salmon, autumn and Chihuly

The Don River running through Toronto near my family home was once a polluted mess, and flood-controlled into a concrete channel.  When I was a kid, you held your breath near it.  Now Nature is winning over Engineering, and people upstream have cleaned up their act.  I've seen - and been amazed each time - kingfishers, night-herons, snakes and mink in the water.  This trip I saw a BC sight, spawning salmon.  They don't have to swim very far from Lake Ontario, so they are full of energy, leaping several feet out of the water in their battles.  It's a happy thing to see the river recovering.  (But it is still a dangerous place - as I was drawing, a golf ball from the nearby golf course crashed through the trees, bounced off a rock and splashed into the creek a few feet from me.  The salmon seemed unperturbed.)
It was a prolonged Indian summer, so the first fall colours were just showing up in the view over the leafy suburb.
Speaking of colours, the Royal Ontario Museum had a show by Dale Chihuly, the Tacoma glass-blower extraordinaire.  His work is always worth seeing if you have any sense of joy and exuberance.  One new work had long red glass "reeds" stuck into birch logs, beautiful complementary shapes suggesting a campfire, but an ideal uncharred one.  The boat filled with big round glass balls, inspired by old floats for fishnets, was similar to an exhibit I had seen in Seattle - fun to draw.  And the room with various exotic glass shapes displayed on a clear glass roof streamed colours down onto some otherwise awfully grey business-suited visitors.